Lam was found in a water tank atop the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles in 2013
(Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you haven’t seen Netflix’s “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.”)
Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old student visiting Los Angeles for the first time when she mysteriously disappeared in 2013, and was found in a water tank of the Cecil Hotel in Downtown L.A. 19 days later.
Police later said there was no evidence of trauma and her death was accidental, even if the exact circumstances leading to her demise remain unknown. Nonetheless, theories on why Lam vanished and how she died have circled ever since. Some blame hotel guests and staff, other suggest she was hunted and murdered, and still others say she was playing a Korean game that took on a tragic dimension. That all might be because the hotel in question has been linked to several notable murders and suicides over its 94-year history.
Joe Berlinger’s “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” delves into that history, as well as the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lam’s death. The series also explores the area surrounding the Cecil Hotel, Skid Row, and how it’s been treated historically — a 56-block section has been contained into an area of poverty, drug trade and high crime.
Serious spoiler alert — do not read on if you don’t want to know what is discussed in the documentary.
Incidentally, investigators are now pretty certain of what happened to Lam: Her Bipolar disorder led her to hide in the water tank, where she ultimately drowned,
“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” hits Netflix on Wednesday. Check out the eight most shocking details from the series below.
1. The Cecil Hotel
The Hotel itself was colloquially known to have “insanity within its walls,” with guests ranging from drug dealers to prostitutes and rapists. One interview subject in the documentary series even said the hotel is where “serial killers let their hair down.”
That’s true in at least one instance– Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. the Night Stalker, stayed at the hotel between his grizzly murders. One witness said he would often see Ramirez take off his bloody clothes in the alley and walk up the Cecil stairs to his room. And no one ever said a thing.
The Cecil cost $1 million to build in the 1920s, which was expensive for the time. Since then, the hotel has had a lot of safety issues. Former general manager Amy Price of the hotel said there were thousands of 911 calls in the 10 years she worked there. Another cop said, “When I was on patrol here, you could expect 1-3 calls a day from the Cecil.” Incidents included someone trying to burn down the hallways, domestic abuse, assaults and stabbing, someone slashing their own throat with a razor and even someone jumping out the window and hitting someone on the pavement below, killing him instantly.
“If you didn’t watch yourself, you might be flying out the window without wings,” one former resident said in the doc.
2. Elisa Lam’s Disappearance
Lam had been been traveling in the Southern California area and would call her parents in British Columbia, where she went to university, every day. However, on January 31, 2013, when she was supposed to check out of the Cecil, her parents didn’t hear from her and reported her missing.
Items left behind included her computer, all her clothes, her wallet and her medication. “The room was in disarray,” one investigator said, but no foul play was suspected. Late night employees had seen her in an area not open to guests. Their only lead was the fact that she had gone to a bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles on the day she disappeared.
Not all floors in the hotel had security cameras, and of course, the floor Lam stayed on didn’t have one. But investigators checked the lobby cameras and never saw her leave the hotel.
They used scent-tracking dogs that took investigators up to the 5th floor (Lam’s room was on that floor) and to a window with a fire escape — and that’s where the scent was lost. LAPD helicopters illuminated the roof of the hotel that was accessible through these fire escapes, but found nothing.
Unfortunately, the next day former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner began his 9-day killing spree, which required the attention of all officers, so the Lam investigation stalled. On Feb. 12, 13 days after Lam’s disappearance, Dorner died during a standoff with police.
3. The Infamous Elevator Video
The elevator video is one of the most highly discussed and picked apart aspects of this whole case. A video was released to the public showing Lam get into the hotel’s elevator, acting erratically. She pressed all the buttons, but the elevator door would not close. Then, she was seen hiding in the corner of the elevator and occasionally stepping out of the elevator as if to look if she was being followed. At one point, it looked like she was speaking to someone with jarring hand movements. Then, about two minutes later, she leaves the elevator and the door finally closes — and that was the last time anyone ever saw Lam.
Internet sleuths found the timestamp on the elevator video to freeze multiple times and said the video seemed to have been slowed down 30-35%, resulting in 53 seconds being unaccounted for. That led many of these sleuths to think the hotel was hiding something. However, hotel staff denied altering the video.
4. How She Was Found
19 days after Lam’s disappearance, hotels guests noticed that the water pressure was very low and that the water was discolored and had a funny taste. They complained to hotel staff who then moved the couple to a different room two floors up. However, the water pressure didn’t change, so hotel staff went up to check the water tanks, which is where they found Lam floating face-up, naked. “She was white, like a ghost.” Investigators told the public that the tank hatch was closed and that there was a considerable amount of decomposition, with her clothes found at the bottom of the tank.
After she was found, interest in the hotel went up.
5. The Investigation
There was no evidence to support a crime of violence — there was no suspect and no physical evidence to suggest foul play. However, the fact that there was no ladder in the tank meant Lam couldn’t have closed the latch herself after jumping in, so that raised some suspicion for investigators and internet sleuths alike.
There was no way to tell how long she had been in the tank, and there were no internal or external injuries that could’ve led to her death — there was also no evidence of sexual assault. Investigators found that no one could have carried her body up the latter to the water tank without extensively bruising her body.
Even after the coroner performed his tests, her cause of death remained inconclusive. There was no evidence of illicit drug or alcohol use, and the only drugs identified were her prescription medication for Bipolar disorder. However, the levels of her prescribed medication was very low which suggested she was undertaking her medication. “Why would someone do that?” one investigator asks. It quickly became clear to investigators that Lam stopped taking her medication as her trip unfolded.
Four months after her death, the coroner finally released the final report: Lam’s death was ruled an accident due to drowning, and found that her Bipolar disorder was a factor.
6. Lam’s Behavior Leading up to Her Disappearance
Investigators found that she had gone to a live taping of a show in Burbank in the days leading up to her disappearance, and she was acting strange — she even sent a letter to the show’s host that promptly had her removed from the building by security.
She had also been sharing a room with other girls in the hotel who complained about her behavior, so hotel management had to move her to another room.
Apparently, she would lock the door and require a password for them to enter, or would leave notes on their bed telling them to “go away” or “go home.”
7. Pop Culture Links
Internet sleuths found a connection between Lam’s case and a film called “Dark Water,” where a girl was wearing a red jacket, just like Lam was, and there was a scene where discolored water comes pouring out of a faucet. The girl dies by falling into a water tank.
There were also rumors that Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia, was seen to have been at the hotel bar just days before her grizzly murder.
Another weird coincidence — there was a tuberculosis outbreak just days after Lam’s death — and the test to detect the disease was called LAM-ELISA.
Singer Morbid, the founding member of the band Dynasty of Darkness, also has an unfortunately coincidental link to Lam’s death. Just days before, he uploaded a video of himself hanging out at the Cecil, and it contained a teaser for his new music video “Died in Pain,” which features a girl being chased in a forest to her death.
Morbid did not kill Lam — he was in Mexico the day she died — but that didn’t stop amateur detectives from wrongly blaming him for her death. People started posting their theories about Morbid’s connection to Lam and (false) theories about how he could’ve killed the woman, something he says in the documentary has taken a deep toll.
8. What Investigators Believe Happened
Ultimately, investigators believe they have figured out how and why Lam died. People suffering from Bipolar 1 disorder can experience psychotic breaks where it’s hard to separate fantasy from reality — the elevator video and Lam’s unusual behavior lead investigators to conclude that’s what she was experiencing. Additionally, her sister said she had “patterns” of previous episodes where she was afraid someone was after her.
Maybe, then, she saw the water tank as a place to hide, so she opened the hatch and jumped in. However, she then realized the hatch was the only way out and knew she had to tread water to stay alive. She undressed to lighten the load — leading to hypothermia as well.
And although investigators at the beginning of the investigation told the media that the hatch was closed, that was actually not accurate and was deemed a communication error. The hotel employee who initially found Lam said that hatch was open when he found her.
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